BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN For anyone who has witnessed the slow erosion of democracy in Russia over the past decade, seeing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin win the public relations war over the recent revolution in Kyrgyzstan has been nothing short of maddening. Commenting on the violent ouster of President Kurmanbeck Bakiyev, who fled the country last week after violent riots protesting his corrupt and oppressive rule, Putin said he could “remember that when President Bakiyev came to power, he harshly criticized toppled President [Askar] Akaev for nepotism and giving his relatives or friends top economic and political posts at every corner. I have the impression that Bakiyev has fallen into the same trap.” Coming from the leader who serves as the 21st-century model for budding authoritarians around the world, laments the collapse of the Soviet Union, and routinely orders the police to break up the smallest of peaceful protests, it’s hard to take these sentiments seriously.
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We are lucky that the new government of Kyrgyzstan is willing to renew for at least a year the American lease on the Manas Air Base, which is critical for supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The danger was that the new leaders, who pledge themselves to democracy, would have turned on us because of America’s support for their ousted dictator, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the revolution, is clearly upset with the American role and has cause to be.
She told Lally Weymouth:
I would say that we have been really unhappy that the U.S. Embassy here was absolutely not interested in the democratic situation in Kyrgyzstan. It was not paying attention to our difficulties over the last two years.
We were not happy that they never had the time to meet with us. We concluded that the base is the most important agenda of the U.S., not our political development and the suffering of the opposition and the closing the papers and the beating of journalists. They turned a blind eye.
This points to the delicate balancing act the U.S. has to pull off in undemocratic countries where we have important security interests. Yes, we have to sometimes work with dictators. But, no, we can’t be so blinded by the relationship with the ruler in power as to lose sight of the larger imperative to promote more liberal, democratic institutions. Promoting change without alienating the existing leadership — that’s extremely hard to do. But there is no good choice because as Kyrgyzstan shows, it is the height of unrealism to be unduly committed to an unpopular, corrupt, and repressive status quo.
That’s something that President Obama, the self-styled Realpolitiker, should learn before it’s too late.
Following up on Jen’s and Pete’s posts regarding Obama’s meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the nuclear-security summit: yes, it’s a bit rich that Obama would tell Nazarbayev that the U.S. is still “working” on its democracy — just like Kazakhstan! It even sounds like a scene that would make a nice addendum to that comedy classic Borat.
But in this particular instance, I would cut Obama some slack. It does sound as if the president raised human-rights issues with Nazarbayev, as he should have. The larger issue is whether the president of the United States should be palling around with two-bit dictators like Nazarbayev.
I believe that our foreign policy should champion freedom and democracy, but I recognize that in this imperfect world some short-term compromises are necessary. That includes cutting deals with states such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the latter now the scene of a revolution against the dictator (Kurmanbek Bakiyev), with whom we made a deal to locate a critical American air base. That deal now looks suspect, but what choice did we have? To fight and win in Afghanistan, we need bases in the region, and the outcome in Afghanistan is more important than the outcome in Kyrgyzstan.
That is something that President Bush — denounced and praised as a “neocon” true believer — understand. He too hosted dictators like Nazarbayev at the White House — and no doubt said some soothing things to them about how much he respected them. That’s the kind of talk that is frequently used to grease diplomatic transactions.
I don’t have a problem with the fact that Obama isn’t doing much to promote democracy in states that are strategic allies. My problem is that he has missed — and is still missing — a golden opportunity to promote democracy in the country that happens to be our deadliest enemy at the moment. He has let the Green Revolution come and go in Iran while maintaining a hands-off attitude. There is surely a case to be made for attempting to reach a modus vivendi with the Nazarbayevs of the world — dictators who are concerned only with keeping power and are willing to accommodate our interests. There is no case to be made for accommodation with the Ahmadinejads and Khameinis of the world — dictators with grandiose ambitions that threaten ourselves and our allies and who have no interest at all in reaching any kind of entente with us.